Mulling over the nominees for this Sunday's British Academy Film Awards, a sudden thought hit me. Could a French movie now win the top prize of Best Film, as did Jean de Florette in the late 1980s – and several others in earlier years? I ask this, however, not as a lament for European cinema but as a reflection on how the Bafta voting process now operates.
I'm particularly interested to find which films and individuals collect the statuettes on Sunday because I'm a member of Bafta and so cast my votes each year, both to nominate films and choose the finalists in certain categories.
I also wonder what the public would make of the extraordinary lobbying process that has emerged in more recent years to help us make up our minds to vote for certain films. For it is this process which now increasingly influences what's on the shortlists.
Viewers watching on the night may guess that Bafta members simply recall a year's films, then put ticks against a long list and fire it off. In fact, in the 1990s, we did just that. But in 2002 the Film Awards were brought forward to February, to precede the Oscars. It was a smart move by Bafta, which has greatly raised its profile, helping it to fulfil its mission to promote the art forms of the moving image.
Yet it also set in train a process whereby the nominations and winners of Baftas and Oscars have increasingly converged. Last year, the two academies chose the same five nominees and winner for best picture. The same actors have won 11 out of 12 times in the last three years. This year, nominations in several key categories are remarkably similar, whether for Baftas, Golden Globes or Oscars.
I'm not sure anyone predicted this when Bafta changed its date. But once it did, Hollywood certainly took more interest in Bafta's awards – and also its members. Its fabled studios introduced us to their skills of gentle persuasion that have long been part of the Oscars.
The most tangible evidence of this is the "screener" – Hollywood lingo for a copy of a film which is seen as a possible award winner. Now, each December, Bafta members get sent around 60 such DVDs, in the hope they'll watch the film – and vote for it. The first protocol of voting is that one must have seen the film.
Sometimes, distributors have taken intriguing steps to get noticed. One year, I got invited to a Vermeer Exhibition. To my daughter's delight, one of the Harry Potter films came in a little pirate's chest. Members will be invited to special screenings to see a film, sometimes with top actors taking a Q&A, and even to certain premiers.
It would seem this hard sell of certain movies to the membership works. Studying this year's 35 nominated films, I got screeners for 33. (I exclude the categories of short films and British "Outstanding Debut"). But well over 200 films are eligible for Bafta awards, on the premise that they have been shown in British cinemas in the last year. Isn't it frankly unfair that this lobbying process is now clearly necessary to progress in the awards?
I would certainly think so had I worked on Eden Lake, a 2008 British horror film that won superb reviews. I expected it to win Bafta nominations but no screener was sent out, suggesting it was never seen as an "award film".
An invitation to a premier is possible because films that get nominated are often released during the "awards season", the term for the run-up to the Bafta and Oscar nights. Witness the winter release dates of Avatar, Precious and Up in the Air, three of the Best Film nominees in both Baftas and Oscars.
Film distributors assume that the voters have short memories – and release strong potential contenders at just the right time, both here and in the USA. That, plus their heavy promotion to both Bafta and Oscar voters, must explain why the same, mostly American, films now dominate the key award nominations, bar the specific British or Foreign categories.
Thinking back to Jean de Florette, it's hard to imagine a French movie could now win a Bafta for Best Film, given how the awards process has evolved. To be fair, European films now have far less exposure anyway in UK cinemas than they did in the 1980s.
That's a huge shame, but I must confess I find the Bafta Film Awards a far more interesting study now that they precede the Oscars. I'm also glad they fall when they do. Today's tired Yuletide telly gives me every incentive to watch the screeners.
Finally, my hunch for Best Film? Avatar: only rarely does a movie take film in a new direction.
The writer is creative director of Quanta FilmsReuse content